From the Mind of Sam

Human movement, coaching, dogs, college football

The Inner Marathon

On Saturday, October 12th I ran a marathon inside my head. I had a moment of clarity when I picked up my bib and saw for the first time the energy, enthusiasm, and massive scale of the race I was running. A vision appeared to me: I saw myself running triumphantly up Michigan Avenue—smiling wide, confident and easy in my stride, having a blast—feeling so good at the end of 26.2 miles that I did a cartwheel across the finish line.

I had no rational reason to believe that this would happen the next day when I ran the race for real. My training was, frankly, shit. My longest run was twelve miles, and that run did NOT feel good. I was so nervous about this that I lied and told friends I had run fourteen miles to make my situation seem less desperate. On top of that, I got sick three days before the race, coming down with a sinus infection on Thursday morning. On Friday morning I was still blowing my nose every five minutes, sitting on a box to teach my classes at the gym.

Things were not looking good. I had signed up for this marathon in February planning to train my ass off, break four hours, arrive at the starting line with no doubts. My good intentions slowly helped pave the infernal highway, and the training spreadsheets were pretty empty come October. On Friday morning (two days before the race), I gave myself a choice:

(a) Quit the race, eat the registration fee, and hold on to my excuses about bad training and an ill-timed cold.

(b) Quit bitching, recalibrate my expectations, do the best I could, and have fun.

B it was. I decided not to worry about my time and just focus on finishing and having a good experience. If I felt great, maybe a 4:30 would be possible.

I woke up on Sunday and had one last doubt. I can’t believe I signed up for this, I can’t, it’s scary… and then I just let it go. I watched that doubt sail off to sea, got dressed, ate breakfast, and headed downtown.

The energy in Grant Park that morning was unbelievable. 45,000 people gathering, preparing to do something they trained for, something they cared about, something good. We corralled up. The announcer got us fired up. The music blasted. The clock struck eight, and we started. A flurry of sweatshirts and jackets arced over the crowd as runners ditched their warm-ups. At 8:04, I crossed the starting line and it was on.

While I ran, I stayed focused on a few things:

  1. My breath. Four steps breathe in through my (now clear) nose, two steps breathe out through my mouth, two steps no breath. Whenever I got distracted, I came back to this.
  2. My technique. This is what saved me from disaster. Years of practicing barefoot-style and POSE running allowed me to stay in a good position and run efficiently. When I found myself getting tight, I relaxed my shoulders, squeezed my butt and pushed my hips forward, and leaned ahead.
  3. My self-talk. I allowed two phrases to enter my head, and any other thought was immediately replaced with one or the other.
    • “I’m just getting warmed up.” The race didn’t start until the last two-plus miles up Michigan Avenue. I reminded myself at mile 8, mile 13, mile 18, and mile 21. This is just the easy part!
    • “Lookin’ good, feelin’ good, oughta be in Hollywood.” I stole this from legendary coach and former Navy SEAL Mark Divine. In an interview on my friend Kenny’s podcast, he said that this was his mantra throughout BUD/S and hell week. He repeated this to himself throughout the incredibly arduous training process, and he never broke. He kept the vision of himself triumphantly completing BUD/S in his head, and he finished as the honor man of his entire class. Which brings me to…
  4. My vision. More than I wanted to stop, slow down, quit, feel pain, or anything else, I wanted to make that vision a reality.

On Sunday, October 13th I ran the Chicago Marathon. I ran triumphantly up Michigan Avenue with a smile on my face. I kissed my girlfriend at mile 25 and told her, “I’m just getting warmed up!” I was confident, staying true to my stride to the very end. I felt so good I did a cartwheel across the finish line, 4 hours, 29 minutes, and 13 seconds after I started.

Sam Post-Marathon

Movement prep for rowing, burpees, and double-unders

I’ve been programming the warm-ups at WCCF for a couple of months now. This is the first of my attempts to get my thoughts into video form. I will talk slower, smile more, and remember the correct date next time!

All I say is goodbye.

An era of my life is coming to a close in ten days. When the sun rises on Wednesday, November 28th, my friend Luke, my dog Dray, and I will pull the Jeep onto Interstate 10. That will be the final sentence on the last page of my little novel’s Los Angeles chapter.

The end of a such a chapter is always a strange time. I remember the end of college, when I was getting ready to leave Chicago. I felt an enormous sense of freedom and relief, knowing that I had finally graduated–something that was at no point a sure thing. All the possibilities of life were in front of me. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I could try any of it.

Joy, freedom, relief.

There was also a bittersweet feeling that I couldn’t shake. Saying goodbye to the circle of friends that had become my second family and support system through the five up-and-down years of college was rough. I knew we were all headed on to great things (and history has proven me right), but what was I going to do without CMAC rehearsals, without Smug Bastard Movie Night, without Lem’s BBQ, without catch games at Stagg Field, without my BOYS?

And what about all the things I hadn’t done? All the ideas that hadn’t been put to paper, the projects not started, the girls I hadn’t kissed? I would never have the chance to complete it all.

Despite that, I knew that I had to go out on my own to become something greater than what I was. I loved Chicago. I could have stuck around, gotten some job, kept singing in choirs, and just chugged along for a while. L.A. offered me a chance to start over as a new man. No one knew me out here, no one expected anything from me. I could be whoever I say I am.

The last three years have been filled with some incredible strikes and gutters, but more good frames than bad. I have built a life that I really do love here, and made friendships and relationships that I will never lose. The time is here again to leave and build something bigger. But just like last time, it’s very hard to say goodbye.

This has truly been the strangest, most wonderful, bittersweet month of my life. I’ve never felt so loved and appreciated than I do right now. Everywhere I turn, someone is telling me how much I mean to them, the difference I’ve made, that they will, in fact, miss me.

Every conversation is becoming a goodbye. As November 28th draws closer, every time I see someone may just be the last. It gives my life a very strange, neverending sunset, feel. I try to give every person their due, hug each one like I mean it, promise to stay in touch. The emotion may soon overwhelm me. I love the people here, and I’m very very sad to leave them.

The future is bright, but right now, the sun is setting.

I’m Leaving.

I was teaching class this past Thursday at CFLA when one of my students walked strangely close to me to ask a question. I was kind of backpedaling–normally one doesn’t buzz the tower when asking for help with Turkish Get-Ups.

“Are you fucking moving?”

In a word, yes. I’m leaving December 1st. I’m sorry you had to hear it from someone else. I promise, though–it’s not you, it’s me.

When something’s coming to an end, I usually have a way of making the thing or person I’m leaving wrong. My end-of-college rant on Herbert Marcuse would be a good example. My college application essays were less curse-y diatribes on why my sleepy, football-is-king high school town couldn’t contain my inevitable greatness. I’ve given some brilliant, lawyer-level arguments on why one ex-girlfriend or another was too nice, too mean, liked me too much, didn’t like me enough, or some other obviously fatal flaw.

It wouldn’t be hard to do the same right now. I could harangue the absurdity of living in California. I could talk about how I need space to grow, which I just don’t have right now. I could make it about this place, but that would be ridiculous. It’s not about LA, it’s about me.

I miss my family. I miss my friends. I didn’t realize what I had until I left it for a bit. Every time I visit home, it gets harder and harder to get on the return flight. I don’t want to miss my nephews growing up. I don’t want to only see my best friends once or twice a year. So I’m moving back.

I don’t exactly know what’s in front of me. I want to take what I’ve learned and developed as a coach here and go further with it. The world of strength & conditioning for athletes is very exciting to me. No, I don’t have anything lined up. Yes, I do have some ideas.

I do want to be clear on one thing: my three years in Los Angeles have been an amazing adventure that went better than I could have imagined. I moved out here with nothing but a Jeep full of stuff and some dreams. I’ll leave here having turned many of those dreams into reality. I’ve created a life here, complete with an amazing job, great friends, and memories I’ll always cherish. The time has just come to move on. I’m declaring victory, and I’ll drive across the country with my head up.

To everyone who’s been a part of my stay here, thank you. I won’t forget you, and my life is different because you were a part of it.

It’s not over yet, though. If you want to see me, it’ll be a lot easier from now until December 1st than after that. So please, blow up my phone! I’m a “yes” to almost anything for the next eight weeks. Let’s have some fun before I melt away.

I’ll close with some of my favorite photos from the last three years. Enjoy.

With Logan & Ingrid, forming the “News Crew” of besties


Moustachioed Bros. Armen, Logan, Sam

The pre-“Face of Fitness” photo brilliance of Carlos MTG.

This was a true TEAM.

Flashing the playground skills at the CrossFit Games

Christmas at the Mancave

Joslyn Park, home of a lot of drives to my right hand

The beautiful city and the dog I’m stealing from it.







Julius Randle is coming for you.

Julius Randle is coming for you. He’s going to eat your lunch. He’s going to get the women you love pregnant, and they’re keeping the babies. He’s going to take your place in your circle of friends. He’s going to hurt your feelings.

Julius Randle is going to make your children respect him more than you. He’s going to make your dog think he’s its master. He’s going to dunk on your grandmother. He’s got no conscience. He’s got no morals. Only a silky game, ridiculous athleticism and explosiveness, and a handle that’s just implausible for a 6’9″ player.

Julius Randle is going to dominate basketball at some point in the future. And most of all, he’s going to be a high school senior this fall. Look out.

Good Shoulders, Bad Shoulders, and The 23:1 Rule

My permanently internally rotated shoulders and I have been through a lot together–neverending soreness, inflamed biceps tendons, an inability to hold a bar overhead or even just keep my shoulder blades on the ground during shavasana.

Keep ’em together!

A long time ago, this seemed to me to just be yet another thing about me that was broken and shitty. I was a pretty competitive CrossFitter at that time, though, and I wanted to do anything to improve my times & scores. My coach, Kenny Kane, referred me to two world-class sports doctors, Manny Manolov and Bradley Frederick. Their treatments and prescriptions have mad a WORLD of difference for me. While I’m still pretty tight, I can actually skin the cat without my humerus exploding out the front of my body.

But like I said, I’m still pretty tight. The thousands of ring rows, band pulls, 5×5 Pendlay rows, lacrosse ball work, and skin-the-cats haven’t cured me. I still get shoulder pain here and there. I’m still missing a good bit of internal rotation. And I’ve bid farewell to my hard-won butterfly kip beyond demonstrating it while teaching.

I was thinking about this while reading a great little piece on taking care of your shoulders & lower back yesterday by a similarly gifted chiro, Dr. Lindsey Mathews. I was all but yelling “preach!” as I read it. Here was the key passage:

The second thing to do is to pay attention to your posture. A lot of shoulder aches and pains can be diminished by proper posture and muscle recruitment patterns. The ideal posture would consist of setting your scapulas in your back pockets (yes, they will never reach but you get the idea) and making a double chin, so your head is directly lined up over your shoulders.

This is where the 23:1 Rule comes into play. No matter how much corrective exercise you do during the hour you train, you can’t outrun your habits during the other 23. My crappy, shoulders-forward posture will always hamstring my shoulder rehab, no matter how many sets of Ts and Ys I do.

So here’s my new rule: shoulders back & down. At all times. If you see me slouch, poke me between the shoulder blades. I deserve it.

For further great info on good posture, watch this MWOD on “How to Stand” with the always-genius K-Star.

How to Watch Football: Understanding “Base” Concepts on Offense

This is the first of what I hope will be many posts to help you, the reader with a spotty knowledge of America’s favorite sport, better enjoy gridiron action this fall. Welcome to football season!

Football is a game where two opponents, for the most part, attempt to impose their will on one another. Everyone loves a good trick play every now and then, but very few teams (among them the brilliantly coached Boise State) consistently win games by deceiving the opponent. Football teams, both on offense and defense, rely on a small set of plays and concepts–their “base” stuff–that they like to run, and then work their countermoves off of that. If you understand what your team’s base concepts are, you will sound very smart on weekends this fall when watching games with buddies.

I am a highly devoted Michigan State fan. Because they’re the team that I understand best, I’m going to focus on them in this post. We’ll talk a lot about other teams in future posts (some of my favorites are Wisconsin, Oklahoma State, and Oregon), but for now, let’s look at what Sparty likes to do on offense.

“Power Football”

You don’t have to be a big football fan to have heard about “power” offenses, “west coast” offenses, and “spread” offenses. “Power,” “west coast,” and “spread” are just three examples of the myriad styles of offensive football out there. Those terms can be more or less descriptive of how the team plays, but they give you an idea of the formations and base plays the team runs.

Most teams establish an “identity” on offense by running a core set of plays very well. The team will work to establish those core plays and force the defense to adjust, then work the counters and constraint plays in response to those adjustments. The team in question today, Michigan State, builds its identity around a few running plays: “inside zone,” “stretch,” and of course, “power.”

Breaking tackles will help any blocking scheme.

“Power” is a classic football play that relies on a simple concept: getting more blockers into an area than the defense has defenders, then using those blockers to pulverize the outnumbered defense. Michigan State does this with a big, physical offensive line clearing the way for their bruising tailback, Le’Veon Bell. Former Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger described the experience of  trying to defend MSU’s “power” game like this: “When they all come off at one time they look like a herd of water buffalo stampeding at you, and there’s a gazelle somewhere behind them.”

It’s hard to describe in text the moving parts on a football field, so I made a video. I’ll work on being more entertaining/engaging/better looking in future weeks, but this one gets the job done.

All right, that’s enough for this week. If you want to read more on “power,” this piece over at Smart Football can’t be beat. Please post any questions in the comments! I’m going to try to get facebook commenting installed on here soon, but for now you can just use your name to comment below.


Motor Control, Motor Learning, and Why My Classes Suck

A wave of motivation has come over me recently to return to serious study. I’ve been sitting around this evening with my old friend, Dynatomy, reviewing some of the early chapters. I really enjoy this stuff, and even though I’ve spent time with this text before, the second reading is giving me new insights.

Nice false grip, brah.

One section in the first chapter caught my attention in particular; the authors outline the concepts of motor controlmotor learning, and motor development. I want to talk for just a sec about the first two.

Motor Control

…motor control refers to how the body’s systems organize and control muscles involved in movement. The system primarily involved in control is the nervous system… (Whiting & Rugg, p. 51)

This is what I call “the wobble.” When I make you do a hollow body progression in class and you get to that awful point where you’re trying to extend your hands and feet further apart and your whole body starts to shake? That’s motor control. Go a little deeper than you did before on a pistol, wobble, then fall on your butt? Motor control.

Motor control is when the muscles you’re trying to use are starting to “come online.” Your nervous system is telling your abdominals, hip flexors, and all the other core muscles to hold your pelvis and midsection in place, but the muscles don’t know how to do it yet. Wobble, wobble, shake, fall. But it gets easier every time! Until, of course, you’re too tired. Then we do three more.

Motor Learning

…motor learning involves several phases: the cognitive phase, the associative phase, and the autonomous phase. In the initial cognitive phase, a person must devote considerable conscious thought to the movement task and tries various strategies. … In the associative phase, movements are less variable, and the mover determines the best movement strategy. … In the final autonomous phase, the movement becomes automatic, or instinctive, and the mover can attend to other factors…

Let’s look at this through the lens of a kipping pullup.

Cognitive Phase

“OK, jump up to the bar. OK, stop swinging. Now how do I start again? Kick forward! No, that’s not it. Oh, yeah, feet back, chest forward. Now kick, now pull, then something else…oh yeah, push away at the top. Shit, this is hard.”

Associative Phase

“I got this. Swing, kick, pull, push, stay in rhythm, breathe, don’t lose grip, hang on, one more!”

Autonomous Phase

“This workout sucks. That girl has a nice butt, though. What’s her name, again? Shoot, what number am I on? I think that was 21. We’ll call it good.”

This is why it takes a while to “master” the movements you learn. Just remember–you never have it truly mastered. Keep practicing, though, because it does get easier.

GymnasticsWOD, or: How to Stop Worrying and Teach Yourself Anything

If, as a coach, I could choose to assimilate the powers of  other coaches, Rogue-style, I would do so in this order:

  1. Phil Jackson
  2. Carl Paoli

The post on how Sacred Hoops changed my life is coming later. In the meantime, I’ll say this: Carl Paoli is pretty much my hero.

Inspire-a-gram. Photo credit: Carl Paoli

I went to coach Carl’s seminar back in January. I remember thinking at the time that $250 seemed like a lot for a day-long gymnastics seminar, but I’d heard that this guy was good, and I really dug what he said in a few videos that I’d watched with him and Kelly Starrett. Little did I know what I was in for.

That day (Saturday January 28th, 2012) was the day I became a coach. Carl started off with a 45-minute or so explanation of his philosophy on movement. It was like every “brilliant” thought I had ever had on the subject, but said so clearly and organized so intelligently that all I could do was nod and say, “yes!” It was like the Landmark Forum for coaches.

That day I watched as Carl coached people to breakthrough after breakthrough without breaking a sweat. When lunchtime came, I offered to take him to the local Whole Foods for some kale salad and chalk talk. I peppered the man with questions, shared stories, and tried to juice every last bit of knowledge I could from him. The second half was just as mind blowing as the first. Carl coached me to my first strict muscle up with one sentence. I had been looking at shadows on the cave wall; this dude was out handstand walking through the meadow.

When the day was over, I took his message to my people at CFLA. I’ve designed and delivered two movement workshops of my own, all preaching the Gospel of Carl. And guess what? The stuff works. My last workshop had three folks get their first muscle up, which is just one measure of the breakthroughs my students made.

I highly recommend going to Carl’s seminar if you get the chance–it will change your life. I highly recommend going to my workshop if you get the chance–I get money if you do. But here’s the thing: not only does Carl Paoli possess unmatched coaching ability–he GIVES IT AWAY FOR FREE.

His website, GymnasticsWOD, is the best source for coaching on the internet that I have seen. There are hundreds of progressions on there to teach yourself to do anything! I have learned a freestanding handstand pushup and straddle press to handstand by following his videos, and my planche hold is coming along. If you want to learn something that involves moving your body through space, go on there and look it up!

And Carl, if you’re reading this, thank you for being amazing. I love you. Not in a weird way, just in a one-man-loving-another-man-who-inspires-him way. Keep being great.


Enough about Lance today. Let’s talk about someone we can ALL agree is great without reservation…the one and only Danette “Dizzle” Rivera.

Dizzle is literally one of my favorite people. I’m going to list off some things I like about her, with photos stolen from facebook to go along.

1.  She makes being a vegan cool.

Even a hardened carnivore can’t hate on this.

Dizzle is not just a vegan, she’s a hardcore, raw vegan. She drinks weird green liquids out of mason jars. She gets all of her protein from hemp, peas, tempeh, and other horrifying things like that. She is, needless to say, out there.

But I never argue with Dizzle about her food. We never get into tussles about whether or not The China Study is utter bullshit (it is, if you were wondering). Why? Because she does what she does better than anyone I know. Her food all looks amazing, tastes amazing, and is crafted with a level of love and care that you just don’t see much.

And I really didn’t notice that the blueberry pie she made me for my birthday had vegan butter in the crust. I just noticed that it was delicious.

2.  She trains like she means it.

With the also awesome Mr. Julio Rivera looking on.

Danette takes her training seriously. She works hard, has fun, and kicks ass. We do improvement challenges at CFLA. Normally, they’re won by new people who improve a ton because, well, they suck when they start. Danette’s been coming for over two years, and still took 5th-most improved in our last challenge. BY TRAINING HER ASS OFF.

She writes about her training, and her articles are great–not the standard, overblown, OMG CROSSFIT IS SO INSPIRATIONAL GIRL POWER! b.s. that everyone else does, but interesting thoughts on training, athletics, food, and other cool stuff.

3.  Her family is the coolest family out of all of the families.

Dizzle’s daughters: Maya, 16, and Mina, 12

Dizzle’s family is so cool that it makes me want to go have my own. I used to fear that one day, I might have a daughter instead of a son. This would lead to 18 years of me having nothing to talk about, no one to play catch with, and having to murder at least 3 teenage boys who mess with her at some point.

But now I know Maya & Mina. They’re confident, happy, smart, athletic, pretty, and just generally amazing. If such daughters are possible, then sign me up. I’m going to go ahead and say that their unbelievably cool mom had something to do with it.

4.  She looks maybe a bit too good for a mother of two who’s north of 40.

Oh, dear.

I’m gonna stop now.

Happy birthday, Dizzle. I’m really, really glad that you were born.